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"I got here, and there was this sense from the staff that they were on the Titanic and it was all going down," Udris says. "It was a done deal."
Since then, there's been plenty of reason to think that the naysayers were right and the ship is just taking an unusually long time to sink.
Bodies Revealed will fall far short of its projected 250,000 attendance, with only 165,052 tickets sold as of August 12. That's fewer than the 177,728 people who came to Dead Sea Scrolls in 2007, which made approximately $2 million more in revenue for Union Station than Bodies Revealed will have by the time it closes.
The next long-term exhibit will be Dialog in the Dark, booked October 17 through February 8, which will send ticket buyers into a pitch-black space and lead them through exercises replicating a blind person's experience. Union Station officials have no attendance projection for the show, which has not yet completed a run at any U.S. venue. It's expected to draw fewer visitors than Bodies Revealed because it will run for a shorter period and because it can accommodate fewer guests per hour.
The success of Dead Sea Scrolls was the primary reason that Union Station finished 2007 without a deficit for the first time since the building reopened. Based on revenue projections from Bodies Revealed, Udris hoped he could end this year without a deficit, too. Despite Bodies' lower-than-expected attendance, Union Station spokeswoman Sarah Biles says the building will end its year in the black.
Udris has yet to land an exhibit as popular as Titanic, which sold 282,372 tickets in 2001.
When Udris started, the station had 207 employees. In June 2006, he eliminated 34 full-time and 25 part-time positions; the staff is now down to 144 workers, 110 of them full time. Operations have come to rely more on volunteers, going from an estimated 35 volunteers when Udris started to 522 volunteers working a combined 41,056 hours in 2007 (most of those hours devoted to duties associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit).
Meanwhile, station leaders have looked for ways to attract customers. Before Udris arrived, board members believed that the answer was a railroad museum. Most Union Station visitors said they wanted to see trains. The KC Rail Experience opened in 2005 with the promise that it would be a must-see for tourists. Today, the ticket is part of the Science City package, and management doesn't even track attendance. The Dino Lab opened as part of Science City in 2005, with officials estimating that it could raise Science City attendance as much as 20 percent, but Union Station reported that Science City attendance actually dropped from 282,602 in 2005 to 275,982 in 2006. Last year's Science City attendance — excluding special exhibits — was 219,202.
In February, a report on the building's operation was produced by an ad hoc committee separate from Union Station's board of directors, who had asked for an independent review of how well the station's management was following the recommendations of a previous task force. The report showed that, to keep the station financially stable, the station had continued to delay necessary maintenance estimated at $1.7 million. The money spent for maintenance has gradually decreased since 2004, from $2,860,787 that year to $2,349,132 in 2007. Udris says it's been more than a decade since the building has had what he calls "any real maintenance overhaul." And Union Station still owes more than $2 million in unpaid bills.
According to that February report, most Union Station visitors don't spend money at the shops or restaurants, and management relies on blockbuster exhibits such as Bodies Revealed to put operations in the black.